For weeks, cities across the United States have experienced Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in response to well-publicized instances of police brutality. But with some protests resulting in rioting and violence, critics have questioned whether anything positive is coming out of them.
The effects of a protest movement are not always immediately clear. The 2009 Tea Party protests helped propel dozens of conservative candidates to Congress in 2010. The January 2017 Women’s March and the related movement focused left-wing opposition on the presidency of Donald Trump and heralded a historic number of political victories for women in 2018.
Based on these recent examples, it’s reasonable to think that it won’t be possible to evaluate the greatest effects of the current BLM protests until more time has passed. However, there is ample evidence that these protests have already sparked change.
The immediate effects of the BLM protest
The recent BLM protests were ignited by the death of George Floyd, a black man who lived in Minneapolis.
Floyd was killed by a white police officer named Derek Chauvin while three other officers looked on. However, the protests are about more than just one death, with the protest slogan of “Say their names” highlighting the long history of black deaths at the hands of the police.
Still, some of the most immediate effects of the recent protest have been related to Floyd’s death specifically. Chauvin, who was seen in a nearly nine-minute video pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck, had initially been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The federal punishment for second-degree manslaughter is a maximum of 10 years in jail or a requirement to pay a fine of no more than US$20,000 or both.
After days of protest, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded the charge against Chauvin to second-degree murder, which is unpremeditated but intentional murder. A second-degree murder conviction can result in a prison sentence of any length, up to life. A judge may ultimately reduce or increase the recommended sentence based on mitigating factors.
Additionally, Ellison agreed to charge the three other officers at the scene – J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao – with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
On a local level, the protests have also moved the Minneapolis City Council to address their law enforcement system. Members of the council said plans to dismantle the city’s police department and rebuild it from scratch were a direct response to the appeals of black community leaders.
Many of the protestors have been calling for a national movement to “defund the police.” This movement argues that law enforcement in the US is overfunded and takes money away from vital community services like mental health care and social workers.
The long-term effects of the BLM protest
The calls for fundamentally rethinking police forces have also been heeded in the federal government, though it’s yet to be seen what tangible results will be achieved.
While the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, has said that he opposes defunding the police, the Democrats in the House of Representatives have released legislation aimed at fixing abuses in law enforcement.
Among the policies in the House’s Justice in Policing Act of 2020 is an end to qualified immunity for police officers who are accused of misconduct. Qualified immunity is frequently invoked to defend police officers who injure or kill people while performing their duties. Officers are protected so long as their actions didn’t directly conflict with a previously established constitutional right.
Other requirements in the Democrats’ bill include mandatory body cameras and a federal ban on officers using chokeholds. The hold that Chauvin used on Floyd would be banned by this law, though Minneapolis has already moved to ban the practice locally in the wake of the Floyd murder.
Another requirement in the bill is a ban on no-knock warrants, which allow police officers to enter a home without announcing their presence. That provision appears to be, at least in part, a response to the death of Breonna Taylor. Taylor, a black woman from Louisville, Kentucky, was killed in her home by police officers who misused a no-knock warrant to enter.
So far, no charges have been brought against the officers involved in Taylor’s death. On social media, the call to “arrest the cops who killed #BreonnaTaylor” has gone viral. The protests have gotten the Louisville Metro Police Department to release the official incident report, though it is said to be “almost entirely blank.”
The Democratic House bill, which BLM activists have said doesn’t go far enough, is unlikely to pass in the Republican-led Senate. Regardless, the amplified calls for police reform – and even abolishment – appear likely to produce some level of systematic change in law enforcement.
How significant those changes will be may not be evident for years.
Public opinion of the BLM protests
The recent BLM protests have been marred by rioting and looting. Along with buildings being burned and violent confrontations with police and locals, at least one shooting death has been blamed on looters who were using the protests in St. Louis for cover.
While officials have been unable to officially determine who is behind the violence and rioting, public opinion has been affected by the carnage. In early June, a majority of Americans said they supported using the US military to help local police departments respond to the protests and rioting.
However, despite public concern over the rioting, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found the country was largely sympathetic to the cause of the protestors. It also found that more than 55% of the country disapproves of Trump’s handling of the protests, with subsequent polls showing that Trump is failing on issues of race in the eyes of the country.
The protests have also positively shifted public opinion on Black Lives Matter, with support for the cause jumping from 42% to 53% in a matter of days.
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